Saturday, September 30, 2006

Water under the Bridge

This week saw the announcement of the submissions from several different countries for the Best International Film category at the Annual Academy Awards. India has chosen to submit Rang De Basanti, while Canada has submitted Water. There is speculation around whether Almodovar will make it as Spain's entry yet again for his Penelope Cruz starrer, Volver, while German movie The Lives of Others is a hot favourite for winning this year.

Water managed to make it through as a Canadian entry on a technicality. After last year's Italian entry, Private, was declared ineligible because it featured dialogue in Arabic & Hebrew, but not Italian, this year's rules have allowed films to use any language, so long as the primary language is not English. With this increased flexibility, and thanks to Deepa Mehta, the film's director, being a Canadian citizen, Water has been officially submitted as Canada's entry.

Alas, an Oscar nomination, or even an award, does not a good movie make. Water is a movie that started out with great hope, but ended up lacking impact. The real tragedy is that Water failed despite some excellent actors, good cinematography and a powerful soundtrack.

Set in pre-Independence India, Water focuses on the lives of widows in a charitable home in Varanasi, where they are sent, once their husbands die, to live lives of denial, penitence and restraint. The entry of a young & feisty child-widow, Chuhiya (played remarkably well by Sri Lankan child actor Sarala) throws the lives of the other residents into turmoil, challenging long standing convictions and traditions. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a young idealist, who falls in love with one of the widows. Several complications & one dead body later, the movie ends with the child-widow being sent off with the idealist on a train where Mahatma Gandhi has been preaching to the masses.

Water was a movie with great promise, and could have been a great movie. It is let down by several factors - most strikingly the lead cast. Both Lisa Ray & John Abraham cannot communicate in Hindi, and when Hindi, especially the lilting cadence of eastern UP, is chosen as the language of the film, finding actors who are convincing is critical. Unfortunately, Ray's inability to articulate herself, or frankly emote, makes the movie appear completely trivial and amateurish. I was frankly surprised by Mehta's casting - its one thing to cast Ray in a movie like Bollywood Hollywood where not much regard for the craft of acting is necessary, but in movies purportedly as dramatic as Water, I would expected better casting.

This incredible goof up in casting is made even more infuriating by the presence of some excellent actors, whose craven under-utilisation makes your teeth grate in frustration. Actors like Seema Biswas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda & Raghubir Yadav make noteworthy appearances in the movie, but despite their heroic efforts are unable to save the movie from descending into abject inanity. The scene where Kalyani, played by Ray, chooses to drown herself in the river is totally devoid of any sentiment, primarily because I found it quite challenging to feel any emotion watching a mannequin swathed in white immersing itself in dark blue water.

What really grates is that it didn't have to be this way. Mehta is capable of making good movies. Earth, the second of her Elements trilogy and based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Cracking Earth, was a good example of her abilities, as was her earlier venture, Sam & Me. Water, just goes to prove that no matter how politically controversial, only good filmmaking can make a good film. Mehta had originally cast the superb Nandita Das & Shabana Azmi in the lead roles, but after her first attempts to film in India were unsuccessful, she chose to recast the entire film. In an interview she claims this is because the original faces had become "too famous", something that made them unable to play her characters. Somehow, I'm not convinced, and methinks this was one fatal mistake.

Water - give it a miss, and pray that those Oscar walas do as well.

Friday, September 29, 2006

What I'm Listening To

Another favourite - though this is of the "I just broke up with you and I will never find true love again" ilk. Listen to it at your own risk...

Snow Come Down

I think you feel, the way I feel
Though you don't want to say
I think you feel, the way I feel
Though it's not the easy way

Wouldn't you like to be with me
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow....

I don't want to cause you any pain
I just want to love you
I don't want to fuck up anything
I just want to love you
And, I know you think I'm kinda strange
I just want to love you
I just want to love you
I just want to love you
I just want to love you

Everytime I see your face
I can hardly breathe
Everytime I see your face
I feel stupid and happy

Wouldn't you like to be with me
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow....

I don't want to cause you any pain
I just want to love you
I don't want to fuck up anything
I just want to love you
And, I know you think I'm kinda strange
I just want to love you
I just want to love you
I just want to love you
I just want to love you

I'd sure like to be with you
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow....

I don't want to cause you any pain
I'd give you the world
I don't want to fuck up anything
I wanna be your girl
And, I know you think I'm kinda strange
I just want to love you
I just want to love you
I just want to love you
I just want to love you....

Ahhh---Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow come down
Watching the snow...

Lyrics by Lori Carson

Back from Dubai

So I finally made it back to London from the world of sand, dust, shiny new buildings, and enough air conditioning to make the most moisturised Hollywood actress turn into a prune from dehydration. I can't believe how happy I am to be back in London - I guess I always forget when I'm away from this place how much of a home its slowly become for me. The only other place I feel that way for is Delhi...

Anyway - I will write a post on Dubai in a little while. Let's just say that being there reminded me a bit of Amitava Ghosh's novel, In an Antique Land, with its strange mix of Arab, Western & South Asian culture.

Space Age City - a view over Dubai Marina

View from an Abra - taking the ferry across Dubai Creek

Courtyards - within the Souk Madinat Jumeirah


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Off to far away lands

I'm en route to Dubai for work, so I doubt that I'll be able to get around to frequently posting. I'm hoping to be back in London by the end of next week, so keep visiting to read about my impressions of the Middle East, or at least the bright and shiny new side of it... the last time I was in Dubai was ages ago on a transit flight, so I'm looking forward to seeing what the bright new city state can offer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

That funny guy called Watanabe

It was probably during the winter of 2004 that I first discovered Murakami.

You could really blame it on an old friend of mine, whom I haven't seen in years. Despite our inability to meet up, we occasionally exchange rambling emails in which we talk about our lives, loves & losses, and which I will admit I save in the event that should someone ever try to publish a compendium of my more significant correspondences, these emails must surely be included. In these potentially historic emails, we often talk about the books we're reading at the moment, those we aspire to read, and those we strongly recommend the other stay away from. These emails have often provided both of us with some unexpected finds. I was able to redirect my friend to look up some more obscure Albanian writers, or that Kundera that is often overlooked on the bookshelf. In return, my friend mentioned Murakami.

In all honesty, he'd mentioned the name several times, but I hadn't really paid attention. I finally did make my way across to the local bookstore, where I couldn't help notice that Norwegian Wood was on sale. There really wasn't much of an excuse to not buy it, so I did.

To quote Casablanca, the movie, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Norwegian Wood was perhaps the first book, after a long hiatus, where I actually felt the author speaking out to me from the pages. Very few books have that honesty in the narration that really stand out, to the point that you can almost hear them speak directly to you through their characters. Only a few books have that feel: Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, The Madwoman of Jogare by Sohaila Abdulali, Paula by Isabel Allende...

And so I was hooked. I went almost as soon as I finished Norwegian Wood to track down some other classics. I must have spent two weeks reading Murakamis from cover to cover: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart, The Wild Sheep Chase, and then Dance, Dance, Dance.

And then the agonising wait for Kafka on the Shore. It was hard to explain that frisson of anticipation that ran down my spine as soon as the posters came up on the Tube during autumn last year. All I could do was look forward to December, when his latest work would hit the bookstores in the UK, and I could go satiate my Murakami desire. Kafka, when it finally came out, did not disappoint. Perhaps the most mature of all his surreal works, the story was a poignant achievement in the art of telling a story of a young man coming of age.

So sometime back, when my sister asked me why I read so much Murakami, I had to sit back and really give it a lot of thought. Finally though (long after the sister had left) I came one with one word to explain it- simplicity.

Perhaps what I find most reassuring about picking up a new Murakami story, especially after having read so many, is that no matter what his story, no matter how or where or when he chooses to place his characters, there is a reassuring constancy about them. (It's almost like a Yash Chopra movie.) They are very different people from each other, but essentially they are gentle, gravely flawed human beings who just want to lead ordinary lives - have friends, fall in love, have sex, maybe have kids, be moderately successful, build fairly straightforward, simple, constant lives. Whether or not this comes to pass is not the issue - his characters always seem to hover at the margins of a classic story-book normal existence, but are somehow thrust towards the opposite direction, one where things are never simple, where complications arise and cannot be explained away, where things are never easy to understand or to resolve.

In a sense, the actual situations that the characters find themselves in are almost irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. Once we've determined that the person we're talking about is a middle aged man, who has had a few girlfriends, is in a job that pays reasonably, but with which he is somewhat dissatisfied (nothing serious, just that back of the head uncomfortable feeling), we don't need to worry whether we're talking about Toru Watanabe or K. The baseline is drawn - we know this character from before, and now that we have a friend of the landscape, we can see how he deals with his often very complicated problems. Once the similarities are recognised, the differences fade away. It no longer matters whether K is in love with a woman debating her own lesbian identity, or whether Toru is in a loveless marriage.

Perhaps this, then, is Murakami's greatest legacy. He has an innate ability to create characters that are so human that we can immediately recognise them - they are shorn free of any exotic trimming that can make them different enough from us to be removed from our own reality. No matter how much you love Harry Potter, you will never be an English adolescent orphan in a private (and secret) school of magic. You could, however, very easily be K - that shy, awkward guy who is painfully in love with his best friend, but cannot tell for a variety of reasons.

And so perhaps this is why I can read almost the entire canon of a single Japanese writer, and step away from it feeling as if he has written stories that could have happened to me, to my friends, or to any one of the thousands of people I have met in my lifetime. And that is probably why I will keep going back to read him, again & again, & again.

Monday, September 11, 2006

What I'm listening to

Another Leonard Cohen classic - I'm always amazed by how he manages to convey this despondency in his songs. There's a pathos that I think most people can immediately connect to at a totally primeval level. Anyway, another beautiful piece...

Take This Longing

Many men have loved the bells
you fastened to the rein,
and everyone who wanted you
they found what they will always want again.
Your beauty lost to you yourself
just as it was lost to them.
Oh take this longing from my tongue,
whatever useless things these hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one you love.

Your body like a searchlight
my poverty revealed,
I would like to try your charity
until you cry, "Now you must try my greed."
And everything depends upon
how near you sleep to me

Just take this longing from my tongue
all the lonely things my hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one your love.

Hungry as an archway
through which the troops have passed,
I stand in ruins behind you,
with your winter clothes, your broken sandal straps.
I love to see you naked over there
especially from the back.

Oh take this longing from my tongue,
all the useless things my hands have done,
untie for me your hired blue gown,
like you would do for one that you love.

You're faithful to the better man,
I'm afraid that he left.
So let me judge your love affair
in this very room where I have sentenced
mine to death.
I'll even wear these old laurel leaves
that he's shaken from his head.

Just take this longing from my tongue,
all the useless things my hands have done,
let me see your beauty broken down,
like you would do for one you love.

Like you would do for one you love.

Lyrics by Leonard Cohen

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Cameron in India - a retrospective

The past week hasn't been a good one for Tony Blair. Even for someone used to getting hauled over the coals on a regular basis, the past week has seen his own loyalists closing ranks with the Brownians (Brown-ites?) and baying for his head - Blair must go, the refrain has been in Labour circles.

Add to this more recent conflagrations in Iraq, strengthening Taliban forces in Afghanistan, George Bush's admission that CIA has been using "secret" prisons in the war on terror, and you have to agree that things haven't been good for Mr Blair.

It's therefore not unusual that most mainstream media commentators in the UK have managed to gloss over a rather interesting event concerning the UK & India - the recent trip made by Conservative leader and Leader of Opposition David Cameron to India over the past week.

Normally, Mr Cameron is not that different from his contemporaries in UK politics (or indeed global politics). He has however, shown slightly quirky behaviour in the recent past, which makes him a little more interesting than the usual ilk of dull as dirty dishwater Charlie Brown-esque characters that make up UK politics. His election to the head of the Tories was accompanied by widespread media speculation around his choice of underwear, which you could argue shouldn't have been of that much importance, though I guess given how critical the issue of "support" is in a democratic setup, this should not be totally unsurprising. I shudder to think of the day when Indian journalists speculate on the choice of our national leader's underwear... it conjures images that just don't need to enter my head! Cameron has also been known to make some rather unexpected remarks - such as how antisocial elements just needed to be loved (leading to the popular "Hug a Hoodie" refrain around England; "hoodies" here referring to the unruly masses that tend to lurk in inner city hell holes wearing sweats with hood pulled up)

Cameron is, despite these incongruencies, a fairly charismatic politician. He almost reminds me of Blair when he was younger, less supercilious and definitely less enamoured of the US and its troubling worldview. Cameron has that eager, fresh-faced "I'm here for the greater good" that most young Oxfam volunteers display while on gap year projects spent helping struggling communities in Africa build solar heaters. He is young, dynamic, educated and also quite erudite. You hear him speak and come away with the niggling feeling that you weren't watching the leader of a national party speak, but rather a sophomoric foppy haired Englishman at St. something College in Oxford/Cambridge participating in some major debating competition. Interestingly, that clipped English accent lends a sense of old world to his general aura.

So from this rather jumbled old-world-new-world melee that is the head of "new" Tory, it was to be expected that a political trip to visit the global hub of IT services would be met with a complimentary blog. For that is indeed what Mr Cameron chose to do - maintain a blog to share his experiences of a foreign land with an electorate back home.

The blog, pointedly titled "David Cameron in India" carried brief passages explaining the purpose behind the blog. Most of the content is in video format, with Google videos covering different facets of the MP's visit to India. These included discussions of a more abstract nature around how factory inaugurations in India tend to be different from those in the UK, random rides in a CNG auto rickshaw (somewhat misleadingly called a "tuk-tuk" on several occasions) through Lutyen's Delhi, and general interactions with local Indian passersby who seemed more bemused than impressed (perhaps they might have thought that he was thinking of marrying into Indian politics as well.) Cameron did goof up when he insisted on referring to Rashtrapati Bhawan as the "Viceroy's Palace" - he could have softened the legacy with an appropriately placed "former", but alas, his foppish Oxbridge debating style didn't allow that. The final post from India covered his visit to the Delhi metro, his discussions with university students on their way to North Campus, and the comforts of air conditioning on an underground (obviously a reference to London's Tube, which has sweltered for three months as temperatures soared above ground)

There are two key points to take away from this event. First, we are seeing a sudden resurgence in general interest in India from the UK. Government & industry are both recognising the need to engage with India more proactively than they have been doing in the past, if they are to be able to capitalise on India's predicted economic growth. For an economy that has plateaued in recent years, the urgency to be able to somehow get a share of India's predicted astronomical growth is critical. Cameron is only being pragmatic when he speaks of building on a past heritage to strengthen current relations. His visit to India, even as only Leader of Opposition, is an important statement of British foreign policy to build on relations with India.

However, what is more interesting, at least for me personally, is how Cameron has chosen to utilise a fairly new medium to spread a political message. By using a blog to communicate with his electorate, Cameron is adding a political seal of approval to a growing international phenomenon. Blogging has in a very short span of time managed to present a significant alternative to millions of readers and internet users out there. It has taken the power of communication, and thereby the power to control what is being communicated, out of the hands of big media conglomerates & publishing houses, and has allowed individuals to seize the narrative. Perhaps I am being too post-modernist, but blogging has allowed the individual to deconstruct the meta-narrative of mainstream media and present an alternative that is comprised of millions of infinitesimal micro-narratives.

So has Cameron managed to alter the way in which politicians will communicate with their electorates? I doubt that - blogging still has a long way to go before it will be able to overtake its mainstream, corporate counterparts. More importantly, blogging is only as good as the penetration of the internet - and internet connectivity remains an issue in many parts of the world (You can take a newspaper onto a plane, but can't log onto a website on most aircraft!) Similarly, in developing countries, internet connectivity remains a challenge.

This is not to say that I think Cameron's gesture to use a blog to speak "directly" to his voters will fall by the wayside, especially in the UK. He has managed to capture a very direct forum of communication, and rival British politicians would be very short sighted to let him, and the Tory's, claim that turf for their own without a challenge. It won't be long before we hear of a Blair blog or a Brown blog (a brog?) a green Blog (a grog?) and a French blog, which could most appropriately be called a frog...

And what of India? I struggle to believe that many Indian politicians would bother with using a blog to communicate with voters - can you imagine La senora choosing to write a blog? (Maybe she'd call it Just Janpath) The only Indian politician I could have imagined setting up a blog would have been Pramod Mahajan, but we all know that he's been a victim of fratricide quite recently. And I doubt the bambino Gandhi would either. However, this is a great opportunity for any political party out there that is looking to work its way into the minds of a younger, educated electorate. Unlike the UK, India's population is incredibly young, and any political establishment that can be seen to embrace new technology would go a long way in shedding the ageing, out of touch image that characterises the political class.

Check out David Cameron's blog here

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Kahaan Se Aaya, Main Hoon Kaun?!

Almost a century after Max Mueller made Indology fashionable, the Germans have finally woken up from their slumber and looked eastwards again.

You could argue that the brief interlude that led to World War II and a lot of unpleasantness involving Austrian megalomaniacs called Hitler didn't let Germany lose the Indian touch (I mean, that whole swastika thing was hippy before the hippies were even around) but let's not go there. Recent events in India around shisha bars choosing Nazi themed decors has left a bad taste in a lot of mouths (and this without even trying the food there) so we could avoid that completely.

Getting back to the point - this post is all about how a new high gloss magazine has just recently been launched. Called, somewhat uninspiringly, "Indien Magazin", which translates literally into "India Magazine", published in German, it focuses exclusively on India & Bollywood.

The name is their only tragedy, so far as I can see (given that my knowledge of the German language is limited to a rusty one year at school, this is a totally ungrounded opinion, but hey, let's live dangerously) but you can't ignore the fact that at least their hearts are in the right place. The magazine purports to fill an important gap in contemporary German publishing - that for an informative periodical that targets a non-Indian German speaking readership wanting to learn more about India, its culture and its cinema. And as far as choosing a cover photo, you can't go wrong by picking the biggest name in the Indian fillum industry, Shah Rukh "King" Khan himself, in the biggest ever remake of the century, Don.

The magazine's first issue also has some DVD reviews, as well as retro pieces on classic cinema - there's a story about Umrao Jaan, as well as interview with Sanjay Dutt on his new movie (I'm guessing its Lage Raho Munnabhai) There also seems to be an article on the toy trains in Darjeeling (the title is a somewhat amateurish, "Full Steam Ahead into the Clouds", but the images it conjures are whimsical and definitely entertaining)

Fellow Bollywood blogger Michael already has a post on his site on it, but my German is too poor (and Altavista's Babelfish translator too random) to really make it work!

So let's see where "Indien Magazin" heads - so far, its a promising start. I'm going to see if I can figure out where to buy a copy to try to work my way through with a big dictionary and internet access readily available to run a Babelfish translation...

Check out the official magazine website here
Image from Indien Magazine